You can take the man out of Alabama, but you can’t take Alabama out of the man. That’s the case with 77-year-old Charlie Wyatt. The Birmingham native has lived in San Diego, California, since the 1960s, but his soul stayed in the South. Wyatt began writing short stories a few years ago, releasing a little bit of that Southern soul in the process. You could say he has a Heart of Dixie.
Wyatt loves to read his stories to anyone who will listen. Like he did with this one:
“And it’s called ‘New National Holiday,'”he starts. “It was late July in Toadvine. The regulars were gathering at Sam Cleveland’s place, Catfish Heaven, for the Wednesday night meeting of the Toadvine Cultural Improvement Society and Poker Game.”
Bobby Joe’s got something on his mind. He realizes that August is the only month without a national holiday. So he recommends a day honoring the 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore. As if the idea of a national holiday honoring a relatively unknown president wasn’t enough, Bobby Joe advocates celebrating Millard Fillmore Day on a Wednesday in the middle of the month. That’s when Ben, another character chimes in…
“You want a holiday about nothing at all, for no reason at all, honoring the guy who did almost nothing, and put in the middle of what I think you suspect is a nothing month,” Wyatt continues reading. “Bob said, ‘By golly I think someone finally got it. That’s the whole point.'”
Wyatt’s family home is in Bessemer at the end of Near Nothing Road– and yes, that’s the actual name. It’s a tiny peninsula on the Warrior River. Wyatt was in Alabama for a Woodlawn High School reunion. His modest house is surrounded by high trees with a little boat dock. This is one of the places that inspires his writing.
“In the stories, this is Earl’s place here on the point,” he says surveying the land. “And some of the other characters are inspired by some of these people and the other people that live around here.”
Wyatt calls this place Toadvine, named after a secluded corner of Alabama not far from here. On a map, Toadvine is the intersection of two rural roads. But in Wyatt’s imagination, it’s home to a handful of charming characters. Wyatt’s written more than 100 short stories and Toadvine is the setting for nearly half. His childhood friend Robert Houston, an accomplished novelist, says Wyatt’s consistent Toadvine setting has a lot to with his Southern roots.
“You know some writers begin with a character and some writers begin with a line,” Houston says. “But I think Southerners, in particular, are drawn to beginning with a place.”
And Wyatt agrees. A lot of his stories are set in specific places to which he has personal connection. He’s written about his time in the Navy during Vietnam where he was a swift boat captain, and about his vagabond-style travels around Europe after he got out of the military. The year was 1969. “I had a thousand dollars in travelers checks, and clutching a copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day and Eurail train pass and headed for the old country. At this point I had frolicked in France, dallied in Denmark, sojourned in Spain, and I was currently – as we used to say back then – grooving in Germany.”
To fund his travels, Wyatt says he would come back to San Diego, work at some menial job just long enough to save some money to get him to the next stop on his European tour. He did this for several years before finally settling down and getting married. Wyatt has lived in Southern California for nearly 50 years, and yet it’s almost never the setting in his stories.
“My [two] novels that I have rejected and put away were set in San Diego,” he says. “[But] No. Let me think. Maybe one or two”
Proving once and for all that no matter how far he travels, his Dixie heart is always pointed South.